The Clouds Have Parted

Businesses in the Florida Keys are rolling out the welcome mat for visitors after recovering from Hurricane Irma

By Michelle F. Solomon

Eight months after Hurricane Irma battered the southernmost stretch of Florida, the biggest problem for businesses in the Florida Keys has less to do with the damage caused by the Category 4 storm. Much of that has been fixed. What’s still being repaired is public perception about the 125-mile island chain, which counts tourism as its biggest economic engine.

That’s why Key West mayor Craig Cates almost sings when he invites visitors who think the island isn’t what it was before the storm. “Come on down … the water’s fine!” Cates says. “And everything else is, too.”

The Keys reopened to visitors on Oct. 1, after all 42 bridges of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway were deemed safe by the Florida Department of Transportation. “We announced we were open for business because Gov. Rick Scott had visited Key West and wanted us to be welcoming visitors,” Cates explains. “The state of Florida recognizes Key West as the happy place, and that is how we are known all over the world. We’re a small community, and the governor definitely wanted us to be able to [accommodate] visitors as soon as possible, so we were helped with the resources to do that.”

Cates says it took the city about three more months to feel completely ready. “By January, we were good, and we had a great New Year’s.”

Throughout the Florida Keys and Key West, nearly 80 percent of all hotels are open, and parks and attractions are gearing up for summer. Some resorts have viewed the post-storm period as an opportunity to revamp more than just damaged parts of their properties.

“We spent a lot of creative moments developing new and exciting experiences for our guests,” says Sheldon Suga, vice president and managing director of Hawks Cay Resort. The 60-acre property, an hour north of Key West, is in Duck Key, one of the islands that sustained some of the most serious damage from the storm.

“Hawks Cay Rises” trumpets an announcement of different phases of renovation that Suga says will “enhance the overall look and feel of the resort.” The resort partially reopened in March with 100 villas. The resort will fully reopen this summer following the redesign of the main lobby and all 177 hotel rooms, plus the introduction of some restaurants, Suga says.

No stranger to hurricanes, Cheeca Lodge & Spa had its beginnings after the 22-bungalow Olney Inn on the Overseas Highway in Islamorada was destroyed by a strong storm in the 1960s. Cynthia Twitchell, heir to the A&P grocery store chain, took over the property and named it Cheeca after combining her nickname Chee, and her husband’s name, Carl. Now owned by Northwood Investors, Cheeca Lodge & Spa was closed for six months after Hurricane Irma. It reopened March 30 with $25 million in renovations that revitalized its interiors, including a redesign of its lobby and updated rooms.

Jim DeKeyrel, a 12-year resident of Key West and director of sales for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, says the Keys and its resorts have made an “amazing rebound” since Irma. “We are seeing a resurgence in demand, and we’re seeing that demand growing back to above-normal levels,” he adds.

Poolside at Cheeca Lodge & Spa

Matthew Babich, general manager of Southernmost Beach Resort in the heart of Key West, on its storied Duval Street, says he speaks for many of the resort and business owners of the islands. “We welcome guests with open arms to come stay with us and have the vacation of a lifetime,” he says, adding that there are again “long-lasting memories to be made in the Keys.”

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Drew Limsky

Drew Limsky



Drew Limsky joined Lifestyle Media Group in August 2020 as Editor-in-Chief of South Florida Business & Wealth. His first issue of SFBW, October 2020, heralded a reimagined structure, with new content categories and a slew of fresh visual themes. “As sort of a cross between Forbes and Robb Report, with a dash of GQ and Vogue,” Limsky says, “SFBW reflects South Florida’s increasingly sophisticated and dynamic business and cultural landscape.”

Limsky, an avid traveler, swimmer and film buff who holds a law degree and Ph.D. from New York University, likes to say, “I’m a doctor, but I can’t operate—except on your brand.” He wrote his dissertation on the nonfiction work of Joan Didion. Prior to that, Limsky received his B.A. in English, summa cum laude, from Emory University and earned his M.A. in literature at American University in connection with a Masters Scholar Award fellowship.

Limsky came to SFBW at the apex of a storied career in journalism and publishing that includes six previous lead editorial roles, including for some of the world’s best-known brands. He served as global editor-in-chief of Lexus magazine, founding editor-in-chief of custom lifestyle magazines for Cadillac and Holland America Line, and was the founding editor-in-chief of Modern Luxury Interiors South Florida. He also was the executive editor for B2B magazines for Acura and Honda Financial Services, and he served as travel editor for Conde Nast. Magazines under Limsky’s editorship have garnered more than 75 industry awards.

He has also written for many of the country’s top newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Boston Globe, USA Today, Worth, Robb Report, Afar, Time Out New York, National Geographic Traveler, Men’s Journal, Ritz-Carlton, Elite Traveler, Florida Design, Metropolis and Architectural Digest Mexico. His other clients have included Four Seasons, Acqualina Resort & Residences, Yahoo!, American Airlines, Wynn, Douglas Elliman and Corcoran. As an adjunct assistant professor, Limsky has taught journalism, film and creative writing at the City University of New York, Pace University, American University and other colleges.